Space & Innovation

How to Stop Cow Burps From Warming Earth

Agriculture contributes an estimated 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

At her farm nestled in the green hills of northwestern France, Marie-Francoise Brizard is helping to curb a planet-wide menace: farting and belching cows implicated in global warming.

So far this year, Brizard says she has cut methane emissions from her herd of 40 Normandy cows that are equivalent to 32 tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide.

That is equal to the carbon pollution spewed out in a 292,000-mile car journey, according to a computer tracker provided to Brizard by a French initiative that promotes lower methane output from farms.

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She does it by feeding the cattle more grass but less maize and soy, cutting down on the cattle's output of methane, which comes mostly from belching but also from flatulence.

Ruminant animals emit methane, a gas that is more than 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping the sun's heat.

Agriculture contributes an estimated 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which the world's governments hope to curb in a climate pact to be negotiated in a Nov. 30-Jan. 11 conference in Paris.

Methane accounts for 40 percent of farming's heat-trapping emissions.

As his wife leads the cattle to milking at the 250-acre farm in Mayenne, a district of the Pays de Loire region, Luc Brizard sets out to sow seeds: alfalfa and other fodder rich in proteins alternating with cereals.

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Dried alfalfa allows the couple to feed the cattle in winter without recourse to industrial maize- and soy-based feed which makes up a fifth of the diet of an average herd in France. The cattle also get a small supplement of linseed grown on site.

'Stunning simplicity' Legumes such as alfalfa and oilseeds such as linseed and some beans enrich the milk with Omega-3 fatty acids, which are claimed to have health benefits for humans but which also suppress the bacteria that produce methane. The cows thus emit less of the gas.

Alfalfa crops, rich in nitrogen, help the couple to improve the quality of the soil while their fields lock away carbon.

"The story is almost too good. But it is based on a principle of stunning simplicity: cows are made to eat grass," said agronomist Pierre Weil, joint founder of the "Bleu-Blanc-Coeur" (Blue-White-Heart) initiative, which promotes food products with higher levels of the valued Omega 3 protein.

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The scheme has been certified as a bona fide method of lowering greenhouse gas emissions by the French national institute for agricultural research and by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Under a "business as usual" scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures are predicted to rise by about 4 C (6.4 F) by the end of the century, leading to more droughts, deadly superstorms and higher seas, according the UN's top science panel.

Methane emissions from cattle can be cut by as much as 65 percent depending on the feed, according to the French initiative, which aims for a more modest reduction of 20 percent so as to achieve the best balance between economic constraints, milk quality and animal health.

Meager financial benefits Every month, milk produced on the Brizard couple's farm is analyzed to ensure it meets the Bleu Blanc Coeur standards. Savings in greenhouse gas emissions are tracked each month on their computer with an 'Eco-Methane' counter.

Not all the 600 French farmers in the Eco-Methane project go as far as the Brizards.

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"A farmer who only uses maize can just add a bit of linseed. You don't have to change everything," Weil said.

Despite saving on feed purchases, however, the financial benefits are meagre for the Brizard family.

Dairies in the area are not specialized in collecting Blue Blanc Coeur milk, which is available as a separate product in only a dozen dairies across France. So the dairies just pay the basic price and mix it with standard milk.

Despite the tons of greenhouse gas that are saved, the farm does not receive any carbon credits either because there is too little demand from businesses or cooperatives to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Only a dozen farms in the Eco-Methane initiative get extra money this way, though Weil says such contracts may be signed soon with a group of local rural district authorities.

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The couple and their four children, hard hit by a slide in milk prices, thus live on the sale of beef, which is also rich in Omega-3 proteins.

But they are not regretting their decision to feed their cattle and soil naturally.

Marie-Francoise's father, who started out as a battery hen farmer, moved to organic farming in the 1970s.

"One day he told us: 'I don't want to sell to others what I would not give to my own children.' I was 12, that shaped me," she remembered.

Most people would agree that fossil fuels simply need to go. They’re the cause of pollution, wars and climate change. Scientists have been researching alternative energy solutions like wind and solar power, and hydrogen fuel for cars, for years. But while some automakers -- like Toyota and Honda -- are bringing hydrogen-fueled cars to market, wind and solar are still more expensive than oil and coal and may not be the best solution for all places or uses. For example, some medical devices that are implanted in a human body could benefit from super tiny batteries that last decades.

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So scientists continue the quest for abundant, cheap and efficient energy by investigating lesser-known sources, ones that may seem a little unusual, even ridiculous, unrealistic and, in some cases, morbid. “I think in order to solve the impending energy needs we might have to go a bit beyond,” said Bobby Sumpter, a senior research scientist of computational theoretical chemistry at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here are 11 of the more unusual sources that go above and beyond the norm. Who knows -- one day, you may use sugar to power your laptop, bacteria to run your car or dead bodies to heat a building.

Body Heat

Stretching the imagination when it comes to energy could get us closer to generating energy the way nature does: free and efficient. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson announced that excess heat from the subway tunnels and an electric substation would be funneled into British homes.

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Sugar

Traditionally, putting sugar into a gas tank is a prank that can ruin a car’s engine. But someday, it could be a great way to fuel a vehicle. “We should not dismiss ideas, we should let people pursue ideas of unusual things,” Diego del Castillo Negrete, a senior research scientist in the Fusion Energy Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said. Researchers and chemists at Virginia Tech are developing a way to convert sugar into hydrogen, which can be used in a fuel cell, providing a cheaper, cleaner, pollutant-free and odorless drive. The scientists combine plant sugars, water and 13 powerful enzymes in a reactor, converting the concoction into hydrogen and trace amounts of carbon dioxide.

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The hydrogen could be captured and pumped through a fuel cell to produce energy. Their process delivers three times more hydrogen than traditional methods, which translates into cost savings. Unfortunately, it might be another decade before consumers can actually dump sugar into their gas tanks. What seems more realistic in the short term is using the same technology to create long-lasting sugar-based batteries for laptops, cell phones and other electronics.

Solar Wind

One hundred billion times more power than humanity currently needs is available right now, out in space. It comes through solar wind, a stream of energized, charged particles flowing outward from the sun. Brooks Harrop, a physicist at Washington State University in Pullman and Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State’s School of Earth and Environmental Science, think they can capture these particles with a satellite that orbits the sun the same distance Earth does.

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Their so-called Dyson-Harrop satellite would have a long copper wire charged by onboard batteries in order to produce a magnetic field perfect for snagging the electrons in the solar wind. The energy from the electrons would be beamed from the satellite via a infrared laser to Earth, since the infrared spectrum would not be affected by the planet’s atmosphere. This Dyson-Harrop satellite holds a few technical problems that researchers are currently trying to fix. It has no protection from space debris, and some of the power could be lost as it’s beamed through Earth’s atmosphere. Plus, finding a way to aim the laser beam across millions of miles of space is no small task. What seems more realistic is to use this satellite in order to power nearby space missions.

Feces and Urine

Most people think that feces and urine should be disposed of immediately. But feces contains methane, a colorless, odorless gas that could be used in the same way as natural gas. At least two solutions -- one in Cambridge, Mass., called Park Spark and one in San Francisco run by Norcal Waste -- is focused on converting dog poo into methane.

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In both solutions, dog walkers are provided biodegradable bags, which after they’re filled, are placed into a large container called a digester. Inside, microorganisms process the poo, giving off methane as a byproduct. The methane can be used to power lights In Pennsylvania, a dairy farm is looking to cow manure for energy. Six hundred cows that produce 18,000 gallons of manure daily are helping the farm save $60,000 a year. The waste is used to produce electricity, bedding, fertilizer and heating fuel. And Hewlett-Packard recently released a study explaining how a dairy farmer could make money by leasing land to Internet server companies, who could power computers with the methane. Human waste is just as good. In Bristol, Australia a VW Beetle car is powered by methane captured from a raw sewage treatment plant. Engineers from Wessex Water estimate the waste from 70 homes can generate enough gas to make the car run for 10,000 miles. And let’s not forget urine. At the Heriot-Watt University's School of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Edinburgh, scientists are looking for a way to make world's first urine-powered fuel cells. It could be a viable way for astronauts or military personnel, for instance, to produce power on the go. Urea is an accessible, non-toxic, organic chemical compound rich in nitrogen. So yes, humans are constantly carrying around a chemical compound that can produce electricity.

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The next time you’re standing in a crowded subway in the middle of summer, don’t sweat it. The heat your body produces can warm an entire building, complete with offices, apartments and shops. At least that’s what's happening in Stockholm and Paris. Jernhuset, a state owned property administration company is putting together a plan to capture body heat from train commuters traveling through Stockholm’s Central Station. The heat will warm water running through pipes, which will then be pumped through the building’s ventilation system.

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Paris Habitat, owner of a low-income housing project in Paris, will also use body heat to warm 17 apartments in a building, which is directly above a metro station near Pompidou Center. On a more morbid and less sweaty note, a crematorium in the United Kingdom is using gasses released from the cremation process to heat a crematorium. The energy in cremated bodies is already being captured when it has to pass through filters to remove the mercury in the deceased’s fillings. Instead of letting the energy escape, pipes are used to pump it through the building.

Vibrations

Go out and party; it may help the environment. Club Watt in Rotterdam, Netherlands is using floor vibrations from people walking and dancing to power its light show. The vibrations are captured by “piezoelectric” materials that produce an electric change when put under stress. The U.S. Army is also looking at piezoelectric technology for energy. They put the material in soldier’s boots in order to charge radios and other portable devices. Although this is an interesting renewable energy with great potential, it’s not cheap. Club Watt spent $257,000 on this first generation 270-square-foot floor, more money than it can recoup. But the floor will be reprogrammed to improve output in the future. Your dance moves really can be electric.

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Sludge

California municipalities alone produce 700,000 metric tons of dried sludge annually, which has the potential to generate 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. The University of Nevada, Reno, is drying sludge to make it burnable for a gasification process, which turns it into electricity. A team of researchers at the university built the processing machine as a way of producing low cost and energy efficient technology. The machine turns gooey sludge into powder by using relatively low temperatures in a fluidized bed of sand and salts to produce the biomass fuel.

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The waste-to-energy technology is designed to be on site which means companies can save on trucking costs, disposal fees, and electricity. Although the research is still ongoing, estimates show that a full-scale system can potentially generate 25,000 kilowatt-hours per day to help power reclamation facilities.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish that glow in the dark contain the raw ingredients for a new kind of fuel cell. Their glow is produced by green fluorescent protein, referred to as GFP. A team at The Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, placed a drop of GFP onto aluminum electrodes and then exposed that to ultraviolet light. The protein released electrons, which travel a circuit to produce electricity. The same proteins have been used to make a biological fuel cell, which makes electricity without an external light source. Instead of an external light source, a mixture of chemicals such as magnesium and luciferase enzymes, which are found in fireflies, were used to produce electricity from the device. These fuel cells can be used on small, nano devices such as those that could be implanted in a person to diagnose or treat disease.

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Exploding Lakes

There are three known "exploding lakes," in the world, so called because they contain huge reservoirs of methane and carbon dioxide trapped in the depths by differences in water temperature and density. If temperatures should change and the lake turns, these gases would immediately fizz to the surface like a shaken bottle of soda, killing the millions of people and animals living nearby. In fact, such an event happened on Aug. 15, 1984, when Cameroon's Lake Nyos unleashed a huge cloud of concentrated carbon dioxide, instantly suffocating hundreds of people and animals. In Rwanda, Lake Kivu is such a place. But the government has built a power plant that sucks up the noxious gases from the lake to power three large generators, which produce 3.6 megawatts of electricity. The government hopes that in the next couple of years, the plant could be producing enough power for one-third of the country.

Bacteria

Billions of bacteria live out in the wild, and like any living organism, they have a survival strategy for when there is a limited food supply. E. coli bacteria store fuel in the form of fatty acids that resembles polyester. That same fatty acid is needed for the production of biodiesel fuel. So, researchers are looking to genetically modify E. coli microorganisms to overproduce those polyester-like acids. The scientists removed enzymes from the bacteria to boost fatty acid production, and then dehydrated the fatty acid to get rid of the oxygen, which made turned it into a type of diesel fuel. The same bacteria that can make us sick can also help save people money and the environment, by providing fuel for transportation.

Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are hollow tubes of carbon atoms that have a range of potential uses, from armor-like fabrics to elevators that could lift cargo between Earth and the moon. Recently, scientists from MIT have a found a way to use carbon nanotubes to collect 100 times more solar energy than a regular photovoltaic cell. The nanotubes could work as antenna to capture and funnel sunlight onto solar arrays. This means that instead of having an entire rooftop covered in solar panels, a person may need just a small space.